What CIVIL WAR’s Strange MacGuffin May Mean? (SPOILERS): A Theory, Like Lightning

Still from "Captain America: Civil War"
Credit: Marvel Studios
Credit: Marvel Studios

Let’s state this outright, the staff of Newsarama liked Captain America: Civil War… a lot. So much so we’ve named it one of the 10 best comic book superhero movies of all time. But the comic book superhero genre almost inherently relies upon plot contrivances and frequent use of MacGuffins to move their stories forward. It just comes with the territory, and Civil War is no exception.

Case in point: Upon close examination, it is not exactly clear how deep Helmut Zemo’s manipulations and machinations drove what was ultimately his master plan, and what was just incredibly serendipitous coincidence.

Zemo describes his architecture for his master plan of vengeance as being the product of commitment, patience, and spending a year thinking of nothing else. And while he’s clearly responsible for the bombing in Vienna that took the life of Black Panther’s father and for framing Winter Soldier for the act and the rest that follows, is the implication that he was also somehow behind the Scarlet Witch incident in Lagos, the impetus behind what first divides the Avengers and the signing of the Sokovia Accords in the first place?

It might be best not to think too hard on that one, but there is another MacGuffin in Civil War that continues to stand out like a sore superhero thumb for us, mostly because even during first viewing it came off almost entirely extraneous. The plot point is woven into the story in significant detail, but not only does it do little to move the story forward, it raises new questions that film doesn’t come close to answering.

But as we sometimes do, we have a theory as to what it might mean. And if we’re on target it would mean very big things for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So please take a little ride with us as we explain…

If you subscribe to the theory that no detail is put into a film for no reason – that everything means something – and if you further agree Marvel Studios specifically has been very conscientious about even the small details paying off in some way later, the revelation about the heretofore secret five other Winter Soldiers should be sounding alarms off in your head. Why? Because the plot didn’t in any way require five other Winter Soldiers, much less their deaths minutes after the first revelation of their existence.

Let’s try to break this down:

Fact 1: As implied to leave no doubt in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Howard and Maria Stark were assassinated by Hydra, and Bucky did the deed. Captain America and Black Widow must at least had their suspicions it was him, even if Arnim Zola didn’t state it to them outright in Winter Soldier (Cap didn’t know Bucky was Winter Soldier yet).

Fact 2: That alone more than satisfies the conflict necessary to drive the ending of Civil War – Bucky killed Tony’s parents and that Cap knew they were assassinated and later suspected Bucky but never told Tony.

The reason this event didn’t need any more nuance or detail is because after The Winter Soldier it never occurred to even a single MCU follower that any more details were necessary. The elder Stark was the super-genius founder and an active ranking officer of S.H.I.E.L.D., and presumed constant thorn in Hydra’s side. His assassination required no further in-story justification.

Credit: Marvel Studios

And the how’s why’s also meant nothing to Tony. We don’t even know if Sam shared that particular detail with him in the Raft; Tony wanted desperately to find Bucky and Cap either way. After Zemo’s revelation about the assassination, Tony only cared that Bucky killed his parents, that Cap never told him and that Cap was still taking Bucky’s side. It was inconsequential to Tony that Bucky was brainwashed or why he was ordered to do it or that Zemo was manipulating the situation. He only wanted personal vengeance.

So the five other Winter Soldiers subplot neither caused, drove, nor heightened the initial main moral conflict about accountability that made up the film’s first two acts or drove or even heightened the personal conflict that pitted Cap vs. Iron Man in Act 3. The MacGuffin apparently served one purpose and one purpose only – to get Cap and Bucky (and as a result) Tony all in the same room with Zemo in Siberia.

Now the Russo Brothers and their screenwriters could have conceived the subplot strictly to get the chess pieces in physical proximity for the final set piece fight to take place, but that’s a very convoluted way to go about it and their hands seem more skilled than that. Zemo could have simply emailed the video to Tony and it would have served the same story function. Placing Cap, Bucky, Tony, T’Challa (who also didn’t care about the other Winter Soldiers) and Zemo in a battlefield or arena could have been executed in much more straightforward fashion that didn’t raise new questions.

Credit: Marvel Studios

So why five more Winter Soldiers then? Let’s dive into some more fact checks before the conjecture:

Fact 3: As we touched on earlier this week, by rule main Marvel villains die, or they come back to cause more problems later. Not only did Zemo not die, Black Panther very specifically prevented his death. That will almost certainly pay off later. He’s still alive for a reason.

Fact 4: Rather than just go with Howard Stark being assassinated by Hydra, which again was already accepted canon without question after Winter Soldier, the addition of a subplot that Stark was involved in the attempted creation of new super soldiers in the early 90s for S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a small MCU matter, and certainly not a throwaway one. It adds a whole new layer of intrigue about Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s past that Marvel almost certainly intentionally tacked on.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Fact 5: Bucky puts himself on ice in the first Civil War credits stinger, to be revived when someone can figure out how to deprogram him. With two years between Civil War and the to-be-retitled Infinity War Part 1, Marvel likely didn’t freeze Bucky and place him in Wakanda just so he could be revived in two or three years as a still-programmed wildcard for an all-hands-on-deck battle against Thanos. The whole Winter/Super Soldier subplot is one Marvel is signaling it plans to return to, perhaps in 2018’s Black Panther, just months before Infinity War.

And finally, Fact 6: The apparent deaths of the five other Winter Soldiers was even more extraneous than their existence. Sure, we get that Zemo hates super-types, but putting bullets in their heads when they were already on ice was conspicuously unnecessary, especially considering how conspicuously unnecessary the subplot was in the first place.

So where are we going with this? Let’s skip to the end and then wrap-up explaining how we got there…

We’re wondering if the five other Winter Soldiers will be the MCU’s version of the Thunderbolts?

Still with us? Let’s roll off some more details:

First of all, what the five other Winter Soldiers actually look like is entirely reliant on Bucky’s memory of his time as the Winter Soldier, which is of course entirely unreliable. And we also neither see their actual deaths nor see the aftermath. All we see is a few faces behind frozen yellow glass apparently with bullet holes in their foreheads. Zemo seemingly didn’t shoot through the glass, so why did he even close their chambers in the first place?

Credit: Marvel Studios

And none of this even begins to answer the question of where they were during the events of The Winter Soldier.

Whether the five in the bunker are the actual five other Winter Soldiers and/or actually dead are fair questions to ask in a conspiracy-laden/’nothing is ever what it seems’ universe like Marvel’s. And again the Russos provide a lot of detail for a MacGuffin if its sole purpose was to set up a location for the final fight.

The directors use imagery repeatedly to hammer home there are five of them – the attaché case Bucky steals from Howard is shown twice with the IV packets clearly arranged to show five. Bear in mind one, two, three or even an unspecified number of other, more powerful Winter Soldiers would have served the same story purpose just as well. And as opposed to generic Russians, they were purposely shown as a group of five distinct physical, racial and gender types, one female and four males – again, an odd layer of specific detail for a MacGuffin to be disposed of minutes later.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Is there any significance to five? Well, it was the number of initial members of The Thunderbolts in addition to … wait for it … Zemo, of course. And recall Bucky’s description of the team – they speak dozens of languages and have the ability to destabilize nations and topple governments overnight, and most of all, they have the ability to “hide in plain sight.”

Let that last one roll around in your brain a minute.

Plus, Zemo is the presumably only person alive who knows their verbal programming code, giving him a little leverage.

Considering more than half of the Avengers roster are now fugitives and only Tony (who should now be less compliant and convicted about government oversight, which he signaled in the final sequence), an injured War Machine and a self-doubting Vision remain, Secretary Ross might need/want a public super-team at his whim. And at this point we’ll remind you Ross’ own hands are not exactly clean when it comes to trying to recreate super soldiers. It was his attempt to create a super solider that he could order that led to the creation of the Abomination in Incredible Hulk. Did he really gain “perspective” that changed his ways due to a heart attack on a golf course?

The film, like the comic book, takes Cap’s side and he constantly warns about being subject to the agendas of others. That will likely play out in the future, and if it does, Ross is the likely agenda-setter, taking over the 'senior actor of some stature in a secret villian role' from Robert Redford. 

Remember Black Widow’s warning to Tony? “I’m not the one who needs to watch their back.” Surely she wasn’t warning him of repercussions from the outlaw Avengers (although Hawkeye might want to swing at him), especially considering they were all imprisoned on the Raft when she warned him. She was likely warning him about being under the thumb of the Ross and/or the Accords.

Credit: Marvel Studios

And just for the hell of it, Ross’ Marvel Comics alter ego the Red Hulk also has ties to incarnations of the Thunderbolts, but we’ll leave that – and his decades-old nickname of “Thunderbolt” –  alone for now.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Now when we say the other Winter Soldiers could still be alive and if so it could lead to an MCU adaptation of the Thunderbolts’ villains in disguise and/or villains seeking pardons concept in some form, we don’t mean to suggest a faithful one. The concept as originally conceived by Kurt Busiek doesn’t work in the MCU. So we’re not proposing it’ll be Zemo as Citizen V (although it was purposely established he led an elite military squad in the past despite never showing any of those skills), along with Meteorite, Techno, Songbird (1), Mach-1 (2) and Atlas (3) exactly. But that said, it is interesting that War Machine made ample use of a sonic weapon (1) during the airport battle and that Falcon’s flight pack (2) and Ant-Man’s shrinking/growing tech (3) would presumably still be in or at least was in Ross’ hands for a time while their users were behind bars. Not to mention Cap giving Tony the shield was no throwaway detail either.

Also consider Hawkeye and Black Widow, now fugitives from justice, have a history of leading of various incarnations of the team. Considering his family, Clint for one might have motivation to try to have his criminal record and fugitive status expunged.

We didn’t completely pull this theory out of left field either, mind you. Just weeks before Civil War opened and before we were ever aware of the five Winter Soldiers subplot, we already wrote that Marvel seemed to be signaling renewed interest in the Thunderbolts franchise at their various arms. The original team debuted in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble right before Civil War opened, and as the Marvel Studios’ version of Spider-Man has proven, the company sometimes does signal the MCU direction they’re going in with their in-house animation projects. And Marvel Comics of course just reintroduced a new Thunderbolts ongoing series, featuring several of the original members and led this time by… would you look at that, the Winter Soldier.

At this point we’ll leave this all right there and ask our readers, how much do you believe in coincidence and movie details with no point?

Our answer is ‘not much.’

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